By Dr Donald Rukare
The world is currently gripped in the throes of the gruesome coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Globally, as of April 6, 2020, John Hopkins University reported that we had a total of 1,292,564 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 70,798 deaths and quickly climbing.
The COVID-19 said to have emanated from Wuhan in China and is rapidly traversing the world with thousands of cases and deaths seen in Italy, Spain, and the United States. It is believed a surge of cases will be experienced in Africa as well. Uganda according to the Ministry of Health, had confirmed 52 cases without any fatalities as of April 6, 2020. The government has announced and put in several mitigation measures to stop the spread of the invisible deadly enemy COVID-19. These include inter alia stay at home orders, avoidance of large gathering, social distancing, regular washing of hands and a 7 pm to 6 am curfew.
The swift actions taken by President Museveni and the Ministry of Health are commendable. However, there are critical human rights issues that should be borne in mind during this emergency period.
It is vital that the well-intended and much-needed life-saving measures are implemented taking full cognizance of the inherent dignity fundamental to the well-being of all Ugandans. All the frontline actors should demonstrate respect for human dignity in the battle against this dreaded COVID-19 albeit the evident perilous circumstances we are in.
For example, the mainstream and social media reported cases of severe beatings and assaults allegedly occasioned by Local Defence Unit (LDU) personnel deployed to enforce the night curfew. Many, including journalists, have reportedly fallen victim.
While President Museveni has strongly castigated this, it is imperative that the LDUs are continuously and sufficiently guided by Article 20 (1) of the Constitution of Uganda 1995 (as amended) which mandates them to respect, uphold and promote human rights. Security agencies are providing a vital law and order service, which we appreciate, however they need to do so without excess and brutality.
Such cruel and inhumane behavior is not only wrong but serves to further traumatize already traumatized people. By the same token, Ugandans have a corresponding duty to be responsible and adhere to the health advisory in place. We all need to be responsible for this battle.
Equality and freedom from discrimination are absolutely essential in terms of how the measures are rolled out and implemented. For example, no one should be excluded from government support under the ongoing food distribution programme on account of, for example, sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, tribe, birth, creed or religion, social or economic standing, political opinion or disability. This is perhaps in present times more
acute in the health, education, economic and labor sectors. In this regard, the standard operating procedures and measures announced by the various ministries, departments, and agencies, as well as the Statutory Instruments (SI), issued under the Public Health Act Cap 281 are welcome.
It is important that these and those to come are anchored in a human rights framework. A human rights-based approach to COVID-19 calls for putting in place social and economic safety nets for those that will be affected in, for example, the labour market.
Evidently, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing uncertainty and apprehension even beyond Uganda. This has been exacerbated by several rumors, remedies and conspiracy theories, especially on social media. Providing access to information during this period is perhaps one of the most important duties the government can perform. It is therefore absolutely essential that accurate, credible, accessible, understandable and timely information is provided to all by the government.
In this respect, the regular briefings by President Museveni, Ministry of Health and recently the Ministry of Education and Sports are appreciated. Access to the truth and credible information during this time is vital to allay the fears of people. This duty also extends to all public officials as well as citizens.
We should, therefore, insulate ourselves from information overload out there and try as much as possible to stick to credible official sources. We have to take care of our own safety and wellness during this war.
The COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt come to an end. As we battle the virus, there is a need to do so in a human rights friendly manner. This is a time we that should all harness our efforts to fight this enemy in a responsible manner. We have a duty to stay safe and together we can.
We shall overcome COVID-19.
The writer is a human rights expert and Chief of Party at Freedom House Uganda.